Mosul has been Liberated. What next?

The destruction sustained by the city of Mosul (Al-Alam, July 10, 2017)
The destruction sustained by the city of Mosul (Al-Alam, July 10, 2017)

1.   About three years after ISIS declared the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Mosul, and after around nine months of persistent fighting, the city of Mosul fell into the hands of the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi prime minister arrived in Mosul on July 9, 2017, and declared its complete liberation. The commander of the International Coalition against ISIS declared that the Iraqi forces had complete control of Mosul. However, it is apparently still necessary to remove the IEDs planted in the city by ISIS and complete the mopping up of the city from ISIS operatives, who are liable to hide among the residents.

2.   Mosul has been taken over. What next?Following are some initial implications and insights in the wake of the takeover of Mosul:

A.   The concept of the Islamic State with its jihadi nature based on territorial areas of control has suffered a severe symbolic and practical blow.This blow is expected to increase with the takeover of the city of Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. In light of this, in the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS is expected to switch to a modus operandi of a terrorist and guerilla organization that carries out terrorist attacks and hit-and-run operations, as it did in the past. It should be noted that ISIS still retains areas of control throughout Iraq that it could use for launching large-scale operations.It can be assumed that the main targets of these operations will be the capital Baghdad, the Iraqi security forces, and Shiite population centers, with the aim of harming the Iraqi regime and provoking inter-ethnic tension in the country.

B.   The most significant challenge facing the Iraqi regime and the international community is the rehabilitation of Mosul, where about 700,000 residents have become displaced persons. This rehabilitation is expected to be protracted and costly, in view of the extensive damage caused to the city’s homes and infrastructure (water systems, schools, hospitals, bridges). Any failure or delay in the rehabilitation process could intensify inter-ethnic tension and play into the hands of ISIS, which will make an effort to renew its activity among the Sunni population in the liberated areas. The experience accumulated to date with regard to the speed of rehabilitation of the Sunni cities liberated from the hands of ISIS does not bode well.

C.  ISIS still has areas of control in northern Iraq, along the Syrian-Iraqi border, and in the northern Euphrates Valley.These are areas that are disconnected from each other without a prominent center of gravity, as was the case during ISIS’s control of Mosul. It appears that the cities of Tal Afar in northern Iraq and Al-Qaim in the Euphrates Valley, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, may serve as ISIS’s new control centers in Iraq. If the momentum of the Iraqi forces in the campaign against ISIS is not maintained, and these centers of gravity continue to exist, ISIS is liable to regain strength once it has regrouped following the fall of Mosul.

D.  A struggle for control and influence in the liberated areas, and in Iraq in general, is expected to develop between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States and the West on the other. Iran aspires to prevent the US from advancing in Iraq, take control of the Iraqi-Syrian border area, and create a logistical route from Damascus to Baghdad (which will enable land traffic from Iran to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq). The Americans want to retain their influence in Iraq, but without massive involvement on the ground, and this places them in a position of weakness vis-à-vis Iran. The main proxy through which Iran is expected to realize its interests in Iraq is the Popular Mobilization, an umbrella framework of Shiite militias handled by Iran.